A New Theory of Western Civilization

In the October 2020 edition of The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz reviews Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous:

Around 597 A.D., Pope Gregory I dispatched an expedition to England to convert the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent and his subjects. The leader of the mission, a monk named Augustine, had orders to shoehorn the new Christians into Church-sanctioned marriages. That meant quashing pagan practices such as polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula “I do”), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest. Augustine wasn’t sure who counted as a relative, so he wrote to Rome for clarification. A second cousin? A third cousin? Could a man marry his widowed stepmother?

He could not. Pope Gregory wrote back to rule out stepmothers and other close kin not related by blood—another example was brothers’ widows. He was lax about second and third cousins; only the children of aunts and uncles were off-limits. By the 11th century, however, you couldn’t get engaged until you’d counted back seven generations, lest you marry a sixth cousin. The taboo against consanguineous family had expanded to include “spiritual kin,” who were, mostly, godparents. (It went without saying that you had to marry a Christian.) Pope Gregory and Augustine’s letters document a moment in a prolonged process—begun in the fourth century—in which the Church clamped down, and intermittently loosened up, on who could marry whom. Not until 1983 did Pope John Paul II allow second cousins to wed.

You might assume that this curious story of how the Church narrowed the criteria for marriageability would be relegated to a footnote—a very interesting footnote, to be sure—but Joseph Henrich puts the tale at the center of his ambitious theory-of-everything book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Consider this the latest addition to the Big History category, popularized by best sellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The outstanding feature of the genre is that it wrangles all of human existence into a volume or two, starting with the first hominids to rise up on their hind legs and concluding with us, cyborg-ish occupants of a networked globe. Big History asks Big Questions and offers quasi-monocausal answers. Why and how did humans conquer the world? Harari asks. Cooperation. What explains differences and inequalities among civilizations? Diamond asks. Environment, which is to say, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Henrich also wants to explain variation among societies, in particular to account for the Western, prosperous kind.

WEIRD is an acronym for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” Read the whole thing, or the book itself.

Western Civ.

From History News Network (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

“Western Civ” Was Not a Late Invention

The claim that “Western civilization” as a concept and a course of study was invented during World War I is mistaken. That claim has been in heavy circulation among academic historians for nearly four decades, and has often been used as a culture war weapon against those who uphold traditionalist views of the West’s cultural continuity. First offered in 1982 by University of New Brunswick historian Gilbert Allardyce, this model specimen of historical deconstruction was widely cited amidst national controversy in 1987-88 by scholars who favored replacing Stanford’s Western Culture requirement with a multicultural alternative. Allardyce later helped found what he dubbed the “world history movement,” and his take-down of Western Civ is invoked by historians generally, and partisans of world history in particular, to this day.

Allardyce’s deconstruction of Western Civ was further developed by historian Lawrence Levine in his 1996 brief for multiculturalism, The Opening of the American Mind. As Levine put it, “The Western Civ curriculum, portrayed by conservative critics of the university in our time as apolitical and of extremely long duration, was in fact neither. It was a 20th century phenomenon which had its origins in a wartime government initiative, and its heyday lasted scarcely fifty years.”

Yet the Allardyce-Levine thesis is false, and dramatically so. Under only slightly different names, Western Civ has been taught since colonial times, appealing across the political spectrum until the late 1960s. While it takes a bit of digging to rebut Allardyce and Levine, any historian even moderately skeptical of their thesis could have exposed its gaping holes long ago. That nothing of the sort has happened suggests that contemporary historians’ hostility to America’s “dominant narrative” has hamstrung the discipline’s ability to self-correct. I lay out a refutation of the Allardyce-Levine thesis and explore the weaknesses of history’s post-1960s disciplinary orthodoxies in The Lost History of Western Civilization, a book-length report for the National Association of Scholars, a portion of which is summarized here.

More at the link

The Carlos Museum

Last summer we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and on my Middle Eastern trip I got to see some great museums in Istanbul, Ankara, Boğazkale, Konya, Ephesus, Bergama, Cairo, and Luxor. Compared to all of these, Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum isn’t particularly impressive, but I’ve always appreciated it. It has a great representative sample of objects from the Ancient Near East, the Americas, and Africa, all in a neat building on the Emory Quad. The bookstore is pretty good too. A visit this Sunday netted me a bunch of photographs.

The main hall as you walk in.

“Head of a goddess, perhaps Demeter.” Hellenistic, second century BC.

Contemporary Roman portrait of Emperor Tiberius.

“Relief with a woman,” Roman, first century BC.

Mercury. Roman, first-second centuries AD.

Minoan double axe, fourteenth century BC.

Mycenaean Psi Figurine, thirteenth century BC.

Greek ceramics, geometric period (900-700 BC).

Greek ceramics, Orientalizing Period (700-500 BC).

Black figure vase of Odysseus escaping from Polyphemus.

Red figure vase of Orpheus among the Thracians.

“Volute-krater depicting the story of Melanippe,” 330-320 BC.

Athenian owls in ceramic and silver.

An athlete grooms himself with a stirgil.

An actual stirgil.

Egyptian coffin.

An Old Kingdom mummy, before the standard position had developed.

Egyptian shabti figurines.

A set of Egyptian amulets placed within the bandages of a mummy.

Canopic jars.

Shakyamuni Buddha, Tibet, fourteenth century AD.

Cosmic form of eighteen-armed Vishnu, India, eleventh century AD.

St. George on an Ethiopian processional cross.

The Virgin Mary and St. George in an Ethiopian manuscript.

Native American ceramics.

Vessel with double-headed snake-caiman, Panama, ninth-eleventh century AD.

In the basement on the way out: a reproduction of the Hammurabi stele.

A reproduction of the dying lioness relief from the Assyrian royal palace of Nineveh, now in the British Museum.

A reproduction of the Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.

The rear entrance.

Pauline Roots of the West

From Think Theology, courtesy Tim Furnish, an interesting blog post and accompanying video:

I don’t know how Justin Brierley does it, but he gets the most fantastic guests on his show Unbelievable. In this clip from a forthcoming episode, Tom Holland explains to Tom Wright why he changed his mind about Christianity: specifically, how he came to realise that his assumptions about liberty, equality, human rights, international law and the like do not trace their roots to Greek or Roman concepts, as he had previously thought, but rather to the influence of Christian thinking, and that of Paul in particular. It’s a wonderfully concise and eloquent explanation, both in what Holland says about the Greco-Roman world and in what he says about Paul, and you can watch it all in four minutes.

Do so!

My only wish is that St. Paul could have written better….

Identity Politics

From my friend Lachlan Mead, a report from the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank based in Melbourne, Australia, entitled The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. A choice excerpt, with which I happen to agree:

The teaching of history in Australian universities has become a bastion of the cultural theory of Identity Politics, whereby people are divided by their class, race, gender and their individuality is denied. Students studying history in Australia are at risk of finishing their degrees with a distorted view of the world in which the past is viewed as a contest between the oppressors and the oppressed.

As Brendan O’Neill commented, ‘ Western Campuses in particular have become hotbeds of identity politics, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘identitarian left’ which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas…’

There is a direct correlation between the recent rise of the ‘snowflake’ generation, a neologism used to describe young adults of the twenty-first century as being less resistant and more inclined to taking offence and being offended. These ‘coddled students’, encouraged by both university administrators and academics are eager to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of academic enquiry through mechanisms such as ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ on campus. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, calls this phenomenon ‘the purification of the universities.’

But there’s hope! Click on the link to read about the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilization Program.

Medievalisms on the Move

The famous Tech Tower.

Enjoyed a session today at the 29th Annual Conference on Medievalism at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Stephen C. Hall Building.

My friend Kevin Harty of LaSalle University in Philadelphia gave a great talk on “The Vikings in Rhode Island: The Sagas, The Newport Tower, and R. William Neill’s 1928 Film, The Viking.

Kevin Harty speaks, watched by Michael Evans, Susan Aronstein, and Laurie Finke.

As it happens we’ve just covered the Vikings in History 111, and as has been pointed out on this blog, the Vikings retain a certain fascination for us in a way that, say, the Franks, Vandals, or Visigoths do not. People seem to like them, and in the nineteenth century there was an imperative to discover Viking remains in North America. One can understand why Scandinavian settlers in Minnesota would want to find them – thus the Kensington Runestone, and the statue of Big Ole the Viking that commemorates it. But this impulse was found on the eastern seaboard too: the Newport Tower, built by Benedict Arnold’s great-grandfather in the seventeenth century, was seriously cast as the work of Leif Ericsson on a visit to Vinland c. AD 1000.


Why should this be? I asked. Was Plymouth not enough? Kevin pointed out that America has a love-hate relationship with Britain and can be touchy about acknowledging British cultural primacy. Holding up the Vikings as the founders of white America gets around that. Furthermore, the Vikings, being Nordic, were racially “purer” than the English, who had been tainted though intermingling with the French.

This is going in my lecture next year!

Decline and Fall

Discussed in HIS 111 today: the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, a topic that has inspired any number of theories, many of which I designate “portentous.” That is: from the premise that Rome fell, the theories suggest we will fall too. Some recent examples of this portentousness include a book by Cullen Murphy:

A pamphlet from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy:

And a newspaper editorial in the wake of 9/11:

I will not deny that a study of history can indeed help us to avoid the mistakes of the past. The founders of the United States, for instance, were keen to avoid the descent of their republic into civil war, and its transformation into an empire – something that happened to Rome over the course of the first century BC. Among other things, the founders maintained a firm division between civilian and military life, with the latter firmly under control of the former. Thus, we have not yet had troops under the command of Nancy Pelosi take over Washington and slaughter the supporters of John Boehner, who in turn formed an alliance with Mitch McConnell in order to take it back, etc.

But the whole issue of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is immensely complex and deserves to be studied in depth. We should certainly resist glib answers that allow people to set themselves up as prophets of doom. For instance, I have been told by several people that Rome fell because God punished it for its toleration of homosexuality and other acts of moral turpitude. OK, but it fell after it converted to Christianity – so it’s the Christians who ran it into the ground, because their true home is in heaven, and what do they care about running an empire? (This was Gibbon’s original argument, if I recall correctly.) So we have two simplistic reasons, one from each end of the cultural spectrum, and suggesting that if we want to avoid the fate of Rome, we should either re-criminalize homosexuality, or double-down on state secularism.

But rather than identifying some aspect of the late Roman experience, and finding the same thing happening today, and using it to offer up some ponderous “lesson of history” (other examples: imperial overstretch, uncontrolled immigration, “bread and circuses“, or even the lead pipes as metaphor for chemicals in the environment*), it is usually better to take a step back and consider whether the differences between Rome and America might not be more significant than the similarities. As Jack Hexter said, splitting is better than lumping! The biggest and most obvious difference between Rome Then and America Now is that the American economy is capitalist, and far more dynamic, expansive and robust than Rome’s ever was. There are problems with this situation, of course, and nothing lasts forever, but we can always put off the day of reckoning by creating debt, something the Romans could never do.

Moral: don’t get suckered by portentousness. (But do read Tom Madden’s Empires of Trust, which draws fruitful comparisons between America and Rome – it can be done!)

* But not concrete, despite an article sent to me by a friend entitled “Downfall of the Roman Empire Caused by Concrete.” If you read it, you’ll discover that the researcher claims that Roman concrete “played a significant role in bringing down the Republic,” by allowing politicians to start building as though they were kings. There was a time when even journalists knew the difference between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.

The Glory of Rome

Covered in HIS 111 last week: the Augustan Age of Literature, when Latin came into its own as a literary language, conveniently during the reign of the first emperor, who gloried in it. Chief among these authors was Virgil, author of the Aeneid. The paragraphs below are from a talk I gave last year at the opening of Reinhardt’s production of Handel’s Dido and Aeneas. 

The story of Dido and Aeneas is one of the most famous examples of heartbreak in Western literature. Aeneas and his crew, refugees from the Trojan War, were blown ashore near Carthage in North Africa. The recently widowed queen of Carthage, Dido, was smitten by this dashing stranger and fell hopelessly in love with him. But Aeneas had a destiny to found a new city, not to live as a pampered prince, and so stole away with his men early one morning. He looked back to see Dido committing suicide on her own funeral pyre. Aeneas sailed to Italy, where he founded the city of Alba Longa. One of the inhabitants of Alba Longa, Romulus, went on to found the more illustrious city of Rome, and the Romans, famously, went to war with Carthage in the third century BC. The Carthaginian general Hannibal gave Rome a run for its money, but eventually the Romans defeated Carthage and won mastery of the Mediterranean Sea. This conflict, allegedly, had been foretold by Dido on her pyre, as revenge for her broken heart.

This story comes down to us chiefly from the Aeneid, an epic poem by Virgil, which was published in 19 BC. This work sought to do more than posit a romantic origin of the war with Carthage. The Aeneid was modeled on Homer’s Odyssey, but was written in Latin and dealt with Roman history; at last, Rome had a mythic back-story to rival that of the Greeks, whose culture had long been an object of Roman envy. Coincidentally, the Aeneid appeared while Augustus was transforming Rome from a republic to an empire, and helped to make this transformation palatable. (At one point in the story, Aeneas visits the underworld and has a vision of the future. Unsurprisingly, he sees how glorious Rome will become under Augustus.)

For the Romans, Virgil’s Aeneid was pretty much the only treatment of the encounter between Dido and Aeneas (although that was certainly enough to ensure its popularity and survival). There is no evidence that the story was ever portrayed dramatically. Rome did have a flourishing stage, and permanent theaters may be seen (and sometimes still used) throughout the former Roman Empire. The situation comedies of Plautus and Terence, featuring stock characters and broad humor, were most popular, although tragedies by Livius Andronicus or Seneca were also performed. As with epic poetry, Roman drama was inspired by the Greeks, but modified to suit Roman needs. One of changes the Romans made foreshadows the performance you will see today: Roman dramatists abolished the Greek chorus, which offered sung commentary on the play between different scenes, and instead wrote musical accompaniment for much of the dialogue. About two thirds of the dialogue in Terence’s plays, for instance, was sung by the actors on stage.

A sung libretto, of course, is the definition of opera, a genre invented in Renaissance Italy and which rapidly spread throughout Europe. The Renaissance was also concerned, even obsessed, with the revival of classical themes and motifs, and so it was only natural that many operas featured these things. Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate’s Dido and Aeneas is a prime example of this. But it was not a purely antiquarian exercise. Like most art, Dido and Aeneas cannot be completely divorced from the time it was composed. From 1685 until 1688 England, now decidedly Protestant, was ruled by King James II, a Roman Catholic monarch who did not have the good sense to keep his religion to himself. He succeeded in uniting the political class against him and provoking the so-called Glorious Revolution, when Parliament deposed James and invited his Protestant daughter Mary and her Protestant husband William of Orange, king of the Netherlands, to become co-monarchs of England. (Thus the College of William & Mary in Virginia, founded in 1693.) Tate himself was an Irish Protestant and a refugee from religious wars there and would definitely have opposed King James; he later became England’s Poet Laureate under William and Mary. We might therefore read his Dido and Aeneas, first performed in 1688, as a commentary on the political situation in England. Tate introduces a set of witches who are bent on destroying Carthage. It is they who convince Aeneas to leave the city and to hurt Queen Dido; these witches may represent Roman Catholicism, bent on separating Dido (also known as Elissa in this opera and representing the English people) from Aeneas (representing King James). Even when Aeneas changes his mind and elects to stay with Dido, she expels him from Carthage for even considering leaving her in the first place (although she still dies afterwards). Fortunately, this sort of sectarian strife is not much of an issue anymore, and we can be free to enjoy the opera for its imaginative treatment of a famous classical myth, and for its wonderful music.

Helpful Hints

Helpful hints for writing a document analysis, and for thinking in general:

Do not merely repeat the document says. The significance of Thomas Paine’s statement that “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” is not that “Thomas Paine believed in one God, and no more.” The significance of Voltaire is not that he “defended tolerance.” Of course he defended tolerance! He says explicitly and repeatedly that that’s what he is doing.

Instead, you need to go a step beyond what the document says and analyze it. Some potential questions to answer, if you’re writing on Voltaire: Why does Voltaire defend tolerance, in the time and place that he does? How do his ideas differ, if at all, from those of the other philosophes? Why was intolerance being practiced anyway – is it only because religion is evil, or does it have to do with fervency of belief (i.e. the minute you start to practice tolerance, you admit that your religion might not be true)? Is Voltaire being fair to the Church – or is he a self-righteous jerk? Certainly, if the Church was as bad as he said it was, why was he not burned at the stake for his ideas? Are his ideas actually workable? Etc., etc. It might require some close reading of the textbook, or even some outside reading, to answer these questions. Feel free to do it!

Do not say that the significance of some past idea or institution is that “it’s still in use today.” I realize that I have said that the purpose of history is to help us understand the world as it now is. That is true, but it is not the point of a document analysis, which should be focused firmly on the past. What is it about the time and place that a document was composed that influenced its content? This question can be asked just as easily (and just as fruitfully) about documents whose ideas are no longer in fashion.

Do not praise the document as a substitute for analyzing it. I think there’s often a sense among students that if something is assigned in class, it’s somehow “good”, or the teacher believes in it on a certain level, and the appropriate response is to praise it, as you might laugh at your boss’s jokes. Some teachers may have their egos stroked by this behavior, but many do not. They are much more interested in seeing independent thought on the part of the students. You can praise something, to be sure, but also you need to explain precisely why it’s praiseworthy. In the same way, do not say that someone “stood up for what he believed in,” one of the highest compliments, it seems, among students these days. Why did he believe what he did? What were the consequences of the belief? Etc.

The Ten Commandments

“Obey the Ten Commandments,” commands a bumper sticker in the FPAC parking lot. But which ones? There is one set in Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5), and another, the so-called “Ritual Decalogue” in Exodus 34, which enjoins believers to keep the feast of unleavened bread, to sanctify firstborn sons and livestock, and not to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. But I guess most people mean the first set, the “Ethical Decalogue.” One thing that I did not consider until I started attending my wife’s church: there is no standard enumeration of these commandments! See the table under “Traditions in Numbering” at Wikipedia (I grew up with “R”, but I now labor under “L” – that is, bowing down to graven images is ignored, but coveting my neighbor’s house is somehow different from coveting everything else of his.)

I always like to assign Exodus 20: 1-14 as a primary source document for analysis. Alas, in a Christian culture, the Bible can never be just another primary source document, and this exercise usually elicits “Bible Study” answers about appropriate moral behavior. But if you read it as a text that was produced at a specific time and place, you can reconstruct certain characteristics of ancient Hebrew society:

• Religiously, it was monotheistic. This belief was extremely important (meriting the first four commandments), with competitor religions featuring idol-worship (commandment two).

• Economically, it was not nomadic but settled (“your neighbor’s house”) and it was agricultural (oxen and asses are mentioned – it is likely that such animals were used for plowing and short-distance transportation). (This provides evidence, by the way, that the Commandments were not actually granted to Moses atop Mount Sinai, while the Hebrews were wandering around the desert.)

• Legally, it had a system of criminal courts or at least of dispute resolution (the commandment against “bearing false witness”) and a strong sense of property rights (commandments against stealing and coveting).

• Socially, it was formally hierarchical or perhaps even slave-holding (“menservants” and “maidservants” are mentioned, and as possessions), and it was patriarchal, but not overly so: it is assumed that the listener is male (“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”), but women are often mentioned in the same breath as men (“your son or your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant” or “honor your father and your mother”).

Thus, with a little imagination and thought, documents can be made to speak, and bring the past to life!